Sunday, July 04, 2021

Above the Best: Air Support for Independence Day

On Independence Day, we should give thanks for the men and women serving in the American military. With the hostile regimes in Mainland China, Russia, Iran and North Korea all acting with greater belligerence, we are going to need their training and discipline more than ever. No filmmakers have documented the courage and professionalism of American military personnel better than the tandem of David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud. The Fourth of July is a fine time to catch up with their Above the Best, which captures the efforts of Army Apache helicopter pilots to provide air support to troops on the ground.

focuses on CW4 Daniel Flores’ service, flying two extremely dangerous missions in Afghanistan, after surviving a crash stateside that led to intermittent bouts of claustrophobia. However, the film starts with a controversial incident involving a crashed Chinook, whose entire crew was lost and presumed dead. Flores makes it clear he would never leave anyone on the ground unprotected—and he had his chances to prove it.

The first extended battle
Above documents involved an Afghan convoy, with three embedded Americans, a Captain (who is not heard from, perhaps for good reason) and a lieutenant and master sergeant, who give the full blow-by-blow. Finding them was tricky, but eventually Flores and his crew escorted them safely through one ambush after another.

According to protocol, at least two Apaches should always be deployed together, but due to extreme circumstances, Flores was ordered to accompany a convoy carrying a high-ranking general directly into the Korengal Valley, the so-called “Valley of Death.” He found himself flying with the equivalent of one hand tied behind his back, because his bullets had not been properly replenished.

Flores and his American comrades, both in the air and on the ground, get their full due in
Above. However, many of the interview subjects go out of their way to also give credit to the Afghan regular army soldiers, describing them as patriots. As they point out, the Afghans do not just fight without advanced body army. Many times, they also fight without material like socks. They particularly single out for praise interpreter Naser Ahmadi, who is there for the happy first face-to-face meeting Flores has at the end of the film with some of the ground forces he supported from the air.

There is no question Salzberg & Tureaud are the best in the business when it comes to capturing the reality of modern-day military service on film. As in their previous docs, they integrate some remarkable raw combat footage, in a way that makes the chaotic warfighting easy for viewers to follow and understand. Perhaps their earlier films
Danger Close, Hornet’s Nest, and Citizen Soldier are slightly more focused and even more compelling, but Above the Best is still highly engaging and at times quite visceral.

The men and women we hear from in
Above the Best are indeed among the best. Unfortunately, we are probably going to need them even more as the world gets more perilous—and our current state of denial will make their jobs even more difficult in the long run. Highly recommended for viewers who want to better understand boots-on-the-ground (and in the air) realities for American soldiers, Above the Best has a special screening July 27th, as part of AirVenture at the EAA Museum and it currently streams on the IMDb app. Happy Fourth!